I would like to start with a question: What does it mean to graduate at a time like this?
What does it mean to graduate during a time of water shutoffs and home foreclosures? Of elders without water urinating in plastic bags and longtime homeowners being kicked to the curb? What does it mean to graduate at a time when black men lie bleeding on our nation’s streets while rich – mostly white – men on Wall Street bleed our cities dry?
What does it mean to graduate at a time when an alphabet soup of entities and their minions – the CIA, the EAA, the EFMs, and the IMF grind their boots ever more deeply into the backs of poor people here at home and abroad?
What does it mean to graduate at a time when corporations are seen as people and people are seen as objects to be exploited and then discarded? A time when we spend billions on warfare and little on welfare? What does it mean to graduate at a time when the planet is growing hotter while hearts are growing colder?
I am a graduate of cohort three, and at the time of our graduation, much of what your cohort is stepping into as you graduate was being prepared and put into place. In the span of a handful of years, what author Naomi Klein calls “shock doctrine” has kicked the box out from under any semblance of democracy which may have existed.
This has occurred with breathtaking cruelty and ferocity.
The neoliberal economic plan that has been imposed on people from Gratiot to Greece is harsh, brutal, and inhumane. Everything is up for sale to the lowest bidder – our schools, our cities, our parks and public spaces, our labor . . . our very lives.
We live in a world in which our food is genetically modified, water is increasingly privatized, and everything is commodified. A world that is quickly becoming one big, global sweatshop.
During the time that has elapsed between my cohort and yours, Detroit has changed dramatically as the final pieces of the structural adjustment plan have been put into place. The expensive new eateries featuring exotic local foods with names no one can pronounce. The clear, clean water gushing toward the heavens in downtown fountains only miles away from families forced to bathe with donated bottled water. The new stadium that will host sporting events that few will be able to afford.
The press, of course, celebrates this hip, new Detroit with its craft beers and upscale lofts as if it were the resurrection itself, a resurrection orchestrated by a few white messiahs who over the past few years have bought huge chunks of the city – corporate saviors credited with saving a town in need of redemption and new development. That’s development with a capital “D” which rhymes with “G” which stands for gentrification.
But all that glitters is not gold and we are warned about wolves who come dressed as sheep. As we all know, things are not always what they seem.
When the curtain is pulled back, the picture looks different. Retirees on fixed incomes evicted in the name of economic progress, newly-privatized parks closed off to protesters, homeless men being plucked off the streets of Greektown and dropped off in distant suburbs, corporate security forces and surveillance centers monitoring every corner of downtown. Banks being bailed out while people are being thrown out.
And beneath it all, an ominous marriage of government and business that strips people of their voices and votes, suggesting the “F” word.
While people may debate whether we are falling into fascism and, if so, how far, my own experience working on the water issue convinces me that there is something diabolical going on in this present moment.
I rarely use the word evil, but when senior citizens without water are forced to bathe with baby wipes and fifty children are crammed into an underfunded classroom and the electoral process is undermined, there is no other word to describe what is happening.
C.S. Lewis once said that the greatest evil takes place in “clean, carpeted, warmed and will-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.” He went on to describe hell as “something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”
Police state? Nasty business concerns? All I will say is that if the cloven-footed shoe fits, wear it. If you catch a whiff of something strange in Detroit it may be sulphur and not the incinerator that you’re smelling.
But enough talk of the hellishness of the present moment.
Today is your graduation and there is more to the story. As you’ve gone through the Masters in Social Justice program you have diced and sliced and theorized and analyzed all of the things of which I have just spoken and more. You, better than anyone, know how to read the present moment.
I apologize for opening on such a grim note on such a joyous occasion, but I stand before you today with a heavy heart and know that my honesty and grief is safe with you, my fellow travelers in this life-changing program. In fact, I suspect that after completing the program, many of you share a similar heaviness.
All of us in this room share what I call the “unbearable burden of knowing,” and the sad truth is that once we know something we can never unknow it. All of us who have gone through this program have made the brave choice to look behind the curtain, to lift the unturned stone, to stare into the abyss. And once we’ve seen, we cannot unsee. This is both a burden and a blessing. A burden because looking deeply breaks our hearts, and a blessing because we allow our hearts to be broken in community.
We in this program are a strange and broken tribe of lovers and truth seekers.
For most of us, the passion for justice burns – really burns – like a fire in our bones, as described by the Hebrew prophet. This is a grace as well as a challenge. Unchecked, this fire can fan into rage, despair, depression, and self-destructive behaviors. I know that at times, I have succumbed to all of the above. In the face of injustice that is egregious and unrelenting, we can, as Barbara Lee said, “become the evil we abhor.”
For me, it has been a struggle to stay grounded in grace, a sometimes ugly struggle that I freely confess.
In the time I have left, I would like to share some thoughts about staying grounded during times such as these.
My starting point is always Audrey Lorde who said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Although I do not want to separate Lorde’s words from their specific context, there is great truth to this statement. We know that a house built upon racism, patriarchy, militarism, materialism, and all other forms of oppression needs to be condemned and taken down, but this cannot be done using the same old tools that built the house in the first place.
Yet, how to respond?
I think there are really only three options.
The first option is to pick up the oppressor’s own deadly tools and, in the name of justice, become oppressors ourselves. It is in all of us to be just as tyrannical and cruel and authoritarian as those we oppose. Sadly, ego and power games can extend beyond the corporate board room to our social justice circles. While we may not wield the same power as those who are making decisions that are killing people and the planet, we can kill the spirit of others when we use tools that are sharpened on the anvil of power and control.
The second option involves walking away from the tool shed completely in search of a personal retreat from the injustices of the world. This is probably not the choice of any of you in this room, but it is fairly common among some who long for a better world. In my work for peace, I have met some spiritual activists who disapprove of confrontation, protest, civil disobedience. Rather than dismantle the house, they advise visualizing a new house or constructing a private home within the self that is orderly and untouched by the messiness and complexity of real flesh and blood struggle. A house set far apart from crazy neighbors and all that goes along with community.
While I think that visioning and inner work are absolutely essential, they are not enough. This is an abstract, individualistic way of dealing with injustice that keeps one’s hands out of the dirt. It is not enough to meditate when a thirsty baby cries for water. Or to simply visualize world peace while drones are dropping bombs, resulting in so-called “collateral damage.”
Justice demands that we put our bodies where our beliefs are.
Finally, there is a third way that rejects both oppression and avoidance. I believe we are living at a time that calls us to use all the creativity we can muster to “build something new in the shell of the old,” as it’s been said. Injustice demands confrontation but it must be confrontation that leads to real transformation, not the kind of confrontation that merely replaces one oppressive master with another.
I think the present moment is calling us to forge new tools of transformation that will move us from competition to collaboration, from hierarchical structures to something completely new.
It’s no longer enough to ask, “Who’s missing from the table?” It may be that the table itself needs to be completely overturned. We’ve got to fashion tools that will help us move from survival of the fittest to fitting ourselves to survive in a new way during this time of unprecedented challenge.
I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I would like to share some of the tools or principles that work for me as I struggle alongside others to build something new in the shell of an old, tired, and deadly system. It’s been said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Although my toolkit is still growing, I have picked up a few ideas along the way that have been useful.
First, I have come to believe that all authentic movement work is essentially about healing. What we are living through is a spiritual crisis that has profound material implications. The majority of the world’s people are probably suffering some form of PTSD – post and present traumatic stress disorder – an effect of the pounding the human family is taking as a result of violence – the violence of unbridled capitalism and endless war and environmental recklessness, not to mention all the ism’s that scar the soul and translate into gross inequalities – racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and so on.
I deeply believe that hurt people hurt people and healing people heal people and that part of our work for justice must always include deep healing work, both personally and collectively. If we do not include healing as part of our work, it is very easy to act from our wounded selves and pick up unhealthy tools that we use as weapons against ourselves and others.
Second, I think that at this moment, it is essential to take a clear-eyed look at white supremacy, the primary sin, the deepest wound, the greatest violence of this nation’s history. This structural and personal evil must be confessed and reparation must be made for the social and economic benefits that white people have accrued over the centuries if there is ever to be authentic healing and justice.
Those of us who are white need to get quiet and listen and learn from activists of color who have always paid a steeper price for activist work. We must challenge other white folks who say, “It’s not just black lives that matter, all lives matter,” as if white people need to be reminded that they matter in a culture of white supremacy. We must challenge our white brothers and sisters who are quick to decry street rage while remaining oblivious to the history of deeply rooted systemic violence that raises the question posed by Langston Hughes, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
The house of horrors that is racism is being dismantled by activists of color, especially youth. We white activists need to acquire the necessary tools to dismantle the house of power and privilege that we have inherited and passed on from generation to generation. Like the fish swimming in the ocean in search of water, we white folks are swimming in a sea of white supremacy, often oblivious to our own racism and inherited privilege.
It’s time to swim in another direction.
The third tool involves the decision to stay close to the ground with feet planted firmly in the grassroots in our work for justice. I believe that authentic activism is relational and rooted in the real stories of real people, especially those who remain on the margins. Without being in relationship with people, the work can become academic, abstract, and cold.
All my life, I have gravitated toward the outsider, the bullied, the one who is beaten down and odd. Maybe that’s because I never felt I fit in myself, or maybe it’s a result of having a grandmother who lived in a mental institution where I came to understand on a gut level that beauty and brokenness are twin sisters. Whatever the case, I have always felt the need to go to places on the edge where I get to know the people whose voices are seldom heard.
That said, I am deeply disturbed when people call others voiceless. It’s not that people on the margins are voiceless, but rather, that those in power are earless. Along these same lines, it is important to remember that when we stand in out-of-the-way places with out-of-the-way people, it is never out of pity or a desire to save or even help. Rather, it is out of our own need to be taught, to meet wisdom, to grow in understanding, and to be given the clarity to see the next right step in our own journeys. It is on the periphery where I have met my best teachers.
The fourth tool that I would like to mention involves the recognition of beauty. One of my favorite quotes is, “The world will be saved by beauty.” There is such truth in Dostoevsky’s short sentence. If we looked – really looked – at our world, at one another, at even a single flower, we could never hurt one another. It’s as simple as that.
This is what I call “awe-full” activism, a commitment to justice grounded in wonder and a deep recognition of the terrible beauty and fragility of everything. This recognition of beauty in the midst of human cruelty shatters the heart, but that this is the price one pays for looking deeply. For being human.
Over the years the juxtaposition of beauty and cruelty has driven me to my knees – not such a bad place to be when doing this kind of work. I think of the gut-wrenching violence of olive trees being cut down against the breathtaking beauty of a Palestinian orchard. Of a beautiful young woman emerging from her home on a brilliant summer morning, sobbing over an unexpected water shutoff.
Beauty is not a luxury. It is a necessity that can’t be bought or sold. It calls us to love this world, ourselves, and others back to life. Violence is the antithesis of beauty – the result of simply failing to look closely.
I am going to throw in a fifth tool that is one of my more recently acquired tools: the tool of self-care. I cringe as I write this, but I have to mention it.
I learned a few years ago, that I have a body. A body that requires regular meals, relaxation, and – yes – something called sleep. The struggle to find balance is a struggle that prepares us for the long haul, a commitment to a future that needs us to be strong and healthy.
Throughout most of my adult life, I have lived a disembodied lifestyle. For years, I lived as if I could get by on a big heart and sturdy feet alone. Late nights studying, organizing, writing – all on behalf of justice. At one point, my body militated and I had to recognize the violence I was doing to myself.
For the sake of your own life and the movement, I urge you to pick up the tools of balance and self –care and keep them close at hand. I had to relearn how to eat, sleep, and exercise. It is still a struggle, but today I try to carve out time to do these things.
Speaking of self-care, if I speak much longer, I will be depriving you of both dinner and rest, so let me bring this to a close.
Of all the tools needed to dismantle the structures of oppression that are squeezing the life out of our world, there is one that was given to all of us here in Detroit almost exactly one year ago today that I would like to leave with you today.
One year ago this month, Detroit environmental activist and water warrior Charity Hicks was arrested and held at the Mound Correctional Facility for almost two days for daring to nonviolently resist when private contractors arrived at the break of dawn to shut off her water and the water of her neighbors. One of the white officers who arrested her called promised to “teach her a lesson” after dragging her off in her nightgown.
In late May of last year, Charity was in New York City to speak at an environmental conference. As she stood curbside near a bus stop, a hit-and-run driver slammed into the structure which collapsed on Charity, leaving her in a coma from which she never recovered.
In the days between her arrest and the accident which led to her death, Charity spoke at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Her message was strong and simple: Wage Love! Challenge these unjust systems and wage love! Dismantle the house, but do it with the tools of love. Not a sentimental, sappy love but with the kind of love that stands up to men in trucks carrying shutoff tools on a warm May morning in Detroit.
There are no better words to leave with you then Charity’s: Wage love!
Wage it with all the courage and grace and creativity you can muster. Wage it in season and out.
Wage it no matter what.
What does it mean for this special cohort to graduate at a time such as this?
It means it’s time to do both a little dismantling and a little building with the tools this program and your own beautiful lives have given you.
It means wage love with everything you’ve got.
Congratulations, graduates as you go forth in a world that is dying for love.
Talk given at Marygrove College to Masters of Social Justice graduates on May 9, 2015